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The “Inexpressible, Out of the Shadow” from Mompou and Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough, visible from the waist up in a brown blazer and earth-toned scarf, faces slightly center-right.
Jiyang Chen

In a two-year period beginning with the COVID-related lockdowns of 2020, polymathematic pianist Stephen Hough recorded six albums. Among these is a recording of Frederic Mompou's Música Callada, released in February on Hyperion Records.

The title, which can be translated to "silent music," is oxymoronic. The music, on the surface, is simple as well — Hough says that anyone with even rudimentary keyboard skills can make their way through the 28 miniatures spread out over four books. But making it through is an entirely different exercise from imbuing the music with meaning, as the simplicity of this music betrays the intense intimacy that must be accounted for when committing this music to record. The period of focus — and the altered mind-states that came with the dawn of our most recent decade — made for an ideal setting to spend in the interiority of this composed work.

Hough joins me to talk about Mompou's inspirations in making a set of music that's sacred in the most secular way, the misplaced affections for grandiosity in art, and the need for an instantaneous appreciation of music in our overstimulated lives.

Listen to this interview via the audio player above, and read the transcript below:


James Bennett II I'm James Bennett II [music playing in background]. And we're listening to an excerpt from Frederic Mompou's Música Callada in a new recording by Stephen Hough, or Sir Stephen Hough, a pianist and composer, and a deft conversationalist who can hold court and talk about visual art or theology or music itself. He's also a writer, and his books include a novel, The Final Retreat, and A Handbook for Lectio Divina: The Bible as Prayer. He recently recorded Música Callada during the nadir of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of six albums made during that two-year period, and released it on the Hyperion label. As you'll learn, this music is contemplative and vaporous, a paradoxically weighty gossamer. It's only fitting to drop you into the conversation itself, but you'll be fine. Hough is an expert guide. And he'll start by explaining exactly where Mompou's Música Callada came from.

Stephen Hough He gathered together, really his whole aesthetic world in these pieces [music in background stops]. He refined everything. He distilled everything. He'd always written these small works with very few chords, and sometimes no bar divisions either. Just the whole thing written in a free form. But this was inspired by St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic from the 16th-Century. This idea of music of silence, you know, we say that music begins when words end, but what happens when music ends? And so it's kind of going beyond that music into the world of contemplation, into the world of meditation, really.

So these pieces are kind of . . . I don't like to say they're new age before the new age, because there's a very innocent quality about that, about these . . . this work that doesn't . . . you don't often get in the works of Satie and right on to John Cage, two people who are very much in the same world. We go back to a purity with these. And I think it's har — there's nothing quite like this set. One interesting thing about this set is that — and people have remarked on this to me — is that you can't leave it singing any tunes from it. It's beyond melody even. And I think what it leaves you with is a kind of atmosphere.

James Bennett II I was listening to this music, specifically your recording of it, and it's very tintinnabular, right? It's just so reminiscent of bells to me. I was kind of reminded of Satie, of his "Ogives," those miniatures that are inspired by the arches in those cathedrals in France. It's like...the music is divine in an almost secular way. Can you talk to me about some of the inspirations for this piece?

Stephen Hough Yeah, you've hit on something very important with bells, because apparently I think it was his grandfather who worked in a bell foundry, and so he grew up with the sound of bells, and of course, he was in Barcelona, even today, you hear bells from churches throughout the day. And so I think the sound of the bell and how it could be replicated on the piano was always a very important part of his musical world. He was influenced of course by Satie, certainly the aesthetic of Satie, by Debussy, all those French composers that were just a generation before his. Also the world of Scriabin. I think you hear a lot of Scriabin in this work, but all of those composers are very grown up. You know, I think with Satie he's very self-aware.

There's a kind of cynicism almost in those early 20th century Dada-inspired composers, they were turning against the pomposity of the 19th century, of imperialism, of all these things, and they were going back to a kind of simplicity and making fun of things, really. Particularly then, this is after the First World War when . . . such terrible destruction. And what is the reaction to that? You know, you can't continue with the kind of Wagnerian language that was going on. And so composers, painters, writers, they all turned against that, and made this kind of lighter world. But these pieces are not light, in a way, because they're very serious in their innocence. And so I think he takes certain influences from that world, some influences of miniatures, influences of harmony, but then he makes his own very distinct flavored soup out of it all.

James Bennett II A delicious soup, no less. Before we get into the music, I want to talk about his unusual notation. Like sometimes there are no bar lines, and those are useful in actually reading the music and getting a sense of rhythm. Our producer likened it to writing poetry without punctuation, but then there are like the accidental placements, and like normally an accidental that's like a sharp or a flat or a natural outside of the established key signature, it applies to all the notes within the measure. But in these cases, I guess because maybe there are no bar lines, sometimes the accidental applies only to the note that precedes it immediately, right? And there's, like, all these weird directions, and images, and tempo markings. What's that like, seeing that on the page as the performer and interpreter?

Stephen Hough It's an interesting question, actually, James. I mean, I suppose it's opening wide your eyes. You know, when a page has no bar lines, it has no restrictions. And, you know, we're so fond in life of measuring things out, aren't we? And, you know, time itself, the clock is just the way to measure change. And that's really, I guess, one definition of what time is. And I think when you look at a page of Mompou, of course some pieces he does use bar lines. He uses this technique in different ways and at different times. But when there are no bar lines, he's sort of telling you that this piece again, it's in the present moment. It's outside of this past and future that we love to feel [that] we've got everything all organized. And it takes us back to an earlier time.

People measured time by the rising and setting of the sun. I was reading that really clocks only became really important with the railways, because you had to be at a particular platform to leave on a train at a particular time. Until then, things could be much more approximate and it could be around midday and it would give you a ten minute leniency either side of it. So Mompou takes us back a little bit there. But he's also quite, I guess, ahead of his time in some of the...what you mentioned about the accidentals, the sharps and flats, because many contemporary composers also use this technique because it's just more . . . it's just simpler to see on the page when every note has its own accidental and you don't have to trace back always to see where that note came from earlier in the bar. So it's quite a practical way of writing, in a way.

James Bennett II So what are some standouts for you? [music begins playing, continues in background]

Stephen Hough Well, the very first one we could start with, "Angelico" is the marking. What is the tempo? Tempo of an angel? I have no idea. He gives you a metronome [marking] as well. There are no bar lines in this first piece, it's one page of music. It's absolutely all on the white notes of the piano. There are no sharps and flats. It's pure aeolian mode, if we're being sort of musicological about it. And it just floats through in the most tender, removed kind of way. I notice actually there is one F-sharp in this whole little piece [music continues]. Absolutely gorgeous.

But in a way, it starts us off on a journey which becomes much, much darker. This piece is very tranquil and very consoling, but we enter very, very dark places in this cycle. And I think the fifth piece is one of the most extraordinary ones. This . . . he has "legato metallico," presumably that means a smoothness that has a metal sort of quality to it. It's penetrating, it's harsh in a way, and it has this repeated note all the way through that gives you this this overwhelming kind of sense of foreboding, really [music continues]. Then you have something like the eighth one [music continues]. "Simplice," and it's really like a little children's song. Kids playing in the next streets, and you overhear them from your window. It's that kind of thing, and this is something that he did very much earlier on in his life. [music continues, fades out]

James Bennett II In the late summer and autumn of 2022, you were touring a program that included another [work by] Mompou, his Cantos Màgicos. So, how much has the music of Mompou been on your mind? Like, you have a new album out with it, so what's your relationship personally to that music?

Stephen Hough Well, I just published a book last week about my early years. It's called Enough, and I talk about Mompou in this book because the very first record we owned when I was a kid, I had no music in the house, no classical music, no instruments, no records, nothing. But the first record that my parents bought after I started learning the piano was a miscellaneous recital. And on the recital were two pieces by Mompou. Who could ever have thought I didn't even know who Mozart was when I knew Mompou? So he's been with me from the very beginning. One of his little pieces called Young Girls in the Garden, I played that more than any other piece in my repertoire. It's the perfect encore. It works after virtually anything because this world is so different from what it went before that you can play it after Rachmaninoff, you can play it after Mozart. It really . . . it goes the whole gamut.

And so Mompou came for me, though, with this album, very much into its own during the pandemic. I made six albums during that two year period, and this was the last one I did. And it's one I've always wanted to do, but I never sort of had the time to sit down properly and work on it the way I should have done and get inside these pieces. Because even though you can sight read them all, anyone with a sort of moderate keyboard skills can play any of these pieces. It took me so long working with the voicing and timing and pacing and patience, because the tendency is with these pieces to sort of hurry them along. You think, okay, it's getting a bit boring. Let's fi—, let's move it ahead. The minute you do that, the magic is gone. You have to sit with them and be absolutely still.

And the pandemic was a perfect time to do this, of course, because we were all being much stiller than we'd ever been in the rest of our lives. And so I went to my studio every day, and I was working on these pieces a lot. And it took me much, much longer than I ever expected to find a way to weight the chords in the right way to balance some of these long lines. Where do I take time? Where do I inflect if I take time here or do that gesture, it sounds too knowing, you know, too artificial. I want it all to sound like the wonder of childhood, like you're seeing something — your first sunset, hearing your first bell.

James Bennett II Música Callada is not a gargantuan piece of work, right? It's super personal, it's really sparse sometimes. And it was written over a period of eight years, though, from 1959 to 1967. It's divided into four notebooks. Why do you think, or do you know, like, why he kept revisiting this piece of music over time?

Stephen Hough I'm not sure, really. I was in his apartment in Barcelona, actually. I visited his widow. He was already dead, but she was still around. Carmen Bravo. She was also a pianist. And so I played his piano, which was a very unusual Spanish make of piano. I've never . . . I can't even remember the name of it, but I'd never seen it before. But, you guessed it, it sounds like bells. I couldn't believe it. It really had this wonderful ringing kind of quality. You wouldn't want to play a concerto in Carnegie Hall on it, but it sounded really gorgeous in this small room, and it was a very modest apartment. There was the chair in which he used to watch television at night, and I sat in that, too. And I think he would go into this music room and he would just make these little jottings that are almost like aphorisms really, that you might note down, much as the diary that Dag Hammarskjöld wrote, his book Markings. You know, they were just jottings down and in the end were arranged into a book of sayings and thoughts. I think that's very much what happened with these. I'm sure there were hundreds of pages of sketches, and at some point he gathered them together.

But what's really interesting for me in the whole cycle is that you can't really move them around. None of them would work, I don't think, as an encore. You can't take one of them and just play it alone or put it in a program. It somehow has to be heard in this cycle.

And I'm sure when he started writing it, he didn't have the idea, "I'm going to write 28 pieces of piano music and this is what it's going to be called." I'm sure they sort of grew up and maybe some of them he'd sketched earlier in his life and they hadn't found a home, but eventually they did. And then he just did this perfect way of of architecturally holding the whole group together, which I think is just fascinating. One that comes later, which is the 15th one [music begins playing, continues in background], very much inspired by the fourth Chopin prelude. Full of anguish in these semitones falling [music continues, fades out]. Then one that I like very much — well, I love them all in a way — there is Number 19, the "Tranquillo." But it's . . . it's a waltz [music begins playing, continues in background]. All the suspensions, nothing quite resolves in that.

James Bennett II So I'm thinking about the liner notes for this recording. They were done by Philip Clarke, and in it he writes something about Mompou's music that's interesting and scary in a way. It invites the listeners to embrace boredom. And you had used that word, like, just a second ago. And I want to know what, in this way, boredom means to you. Like, is boredom something that we should fear or try to actively avoid?

Stephen Hough Well, of course, I don't in the end think that's the word that applies to this. But I think Pascal, the French philosopher, said something along the lines of, "All of our suffering comes from the fact that we're unable to sit alone in a room." And, you know, it's something to do with that patience which all of us are afraid of. You know, in a sense, we fill our lives with distractions because we don't want to face certain existential things about how long we have to live, what we're doing with our lives. Do people like us? Do they hate us? Have I used my time well? What am I going to do tomorrow? What am I going to do next month? All of this baggage, which is all about the past and the future. It's the present is all we have, and this is something common to all philosophies and religions. This idea of living in the present moment because it literally is the only reality. And I've had the experience certainly, of eating a wonderful meal and talking about where I'm going to have dinner the next night and actually thinking at the end, well, I didn't really enjoy the meal I was having because I was thinking of the next one, and then by the time I get to the next one, and so on. And it's a sort of vicious circle that goes on and on in our human lives until we eat our last meal. And I think this music is, in a way, part of that whole philosophy of living in the present moment.

It's also part of the philosophy of small things. Something doesn't have to be big in order to be important. You know, you think of the tradition of the haiku, that a poem can be incredibly powerful and meaningful in three lines. It does not have to fill a hundred pages. I wrote another book a few years ago called Rough Ideas, and it was sent out to a number of critics. One interesting comment came back. Someone wrote back and said, "Well, I'll wait until Stephen has written a proper book and not a book of small essays." Well, I think, you know, fair enough. But I think the point of that is very strange, because we could all pad things out, you know, but actually paring something down, taking it to its essentials, which is, I think, what Mompou does in this particular cycle. I mean, in a way, that's the real skill.

There's this little painting of Petrus Christus in a museum in Birmingham. It's one of my favorite paintings, you know, it's all of five inches square, but it seems to be just as important as The Night Watch of Rembrandt. They're both important in their own way. And I think we have a tendency to think of something as long or big that it's more important than not. But moving on to the last book, really, by the penultimate one, I think all of us are feeling like "I can't take any more" [music playing, continues in background]. This is Number 27. I think Number 27 is one of the most beautiful ones. It has these chords, and they're slow, "lento molto," and there are pauses between the chords, and little sort of Webern-like interjections. Pian — three P's, the chord comes again and again, the little motif, and then the chord again. And you really . . . he takes us to the edge of how much you can bear.

And then on the fourth line of the piece, he brings in a melody. It's really just B-flat major arpeggio in a way, but it's like getting a glass of water after being in the desert for a month. You know, you just . . . you hold onto this melody like, "Oh, my goodness . . . this is the most beautiful glass of water I've ever had in my life" [music plays, continues in background]. I think it's a magical, magical moment because without sitting there for an hour before hearing that, it wouldn't have the same effect. Just as like, if I have a glass of water now, I think it's very nice, but it doesn't . . . it's not life-saving like it would be in the other context. And then there's a final piece [music plays, continues in background]. It's the longest piece of them all. It's only two pages. It's almost like a hymn, it's got this chorale, these chords in the middle of the piano [music continues].

And then we finish, as we began, with C major. And so I think the whole journey is quite special. Actually, James, I do intend to play these pieces more in concert. I've done them twice now, but I won't do them in a concert hall [music fades out in background]. I don't think they work on a stage in the conventional setting. It has to be . . . well, I did it in Oxford Cathedral, and I did it in an outdoor cloister in Spain. It could be in the car park. It could be outdoors. It could be in a museum somewhere like the Guggenheim in New York with great space, or in the gardens of the [Isabella Stewart] Gardner Museum in Boston. I mean, just somewhere where it's not a conventional setting, because the audience can't expect this to be music as they're used to. This is music of silence. It's music beyond the norm.

James Bennett II So silence is the theme in his artistic philosophy and in his music. And he wrote this quote, or it's a quote that's been attributed to him, but I've been seeing it. And it's, "Music is written for the inexpressible, and it should seem to come out of the shadow in order to move back into the shadow." And he called this "Musica Callada," "music with a weak heartbeat." And you even said, you know, you talked about how this music seems to evaporate from itself. What makes, in this case, right, like the quiet so beautiful?

Stephen Hough Gosh, it's a big question. I think it's a number of things. I think it's allowing the time for the music to unfold. There's no sense of rush in any of this. I think there are literal silences, which are rests, which, you know, gaps between the notes. And then I think there's a sense in which he's enjoying and presenting to you the exquisite nature of these chords and these small melodic ideas. You know, so he'll place a chord on the piano and invite you just to listen to how beautiful it is. And as a pianist, I love the piano and it's something that I . . . it gives me joy every day of my life. And I think that just recovering the sheer delight in the sound of a simple chord on the piano is something that Mompou can help us do.

A little bit like, you know, a wonderful chef can show you how beautiful broccoli is by choosing a good piece and maybe seasoning it in a particular way, or putting it with something else and you think, "Wow, broccoli is just so wonderful, isn't it?" And so I think there's an element of that in this music. And I think that this is why it's very, for me, life-affirming. I think it obviously had an initial religious inspiration from this Carmelite mystic, but it's not denominational at all in the way that Messiaen is. I mean, Messiaen is . . . there are some things that are shared, some of the harmonic things.

But of course, Messiaen is complicated, and very specifically Catholic, and you see the stained-glass windows shattering through in the cathedral and all of these sparkling kind of textures. Mompou's, you know, we're in his apartment. He's not in a church. It's very . . . it is secular. It's universal in a way. And I think anyone from wherever they're coming to from their own personal journey can find something in this music that's actually very appealing, and consoling, and knowing. It's like Mompou . . . he knows what you're about. He's sharing his world with yours because he knows that you share things together as two human beings.

James Bennett II That was Stephen Hough on his new album, a recording of Frederic Mompou's Música Callada, released this year on Hyperion. His memoir, Enough Scenes from Childhood, is due stateside in early April. It already exists in Europe, though, should you have a connect there. I'm James Bennett II [music playing, gradually fades out].

James Bennett II is a Digital Writer/Announcer for CRB and a reporter in the newsroom at GBH.